In April 2018, I posted my thousandth post on this blog. To celebrate, I started sharing here all my short stories. Every couple of weeks, I’ll be posting one story from my celebrated Exciting Destinies series for you to enjoy. With over 30 stories so far, I hope you’ll have lots of fun in the coming months!
This week, it’s “A Twist of the Tail,” a story from Infinite Waters. Click here to read some more free stories.
A Twist of the Tail
Despite the early hour, I was covered in sweat. The day promised to be another scorcher. It was August, after all. I let out a small groan and faced the cloudless sky, grateful for a brief whiff of morning breeze, before I grabbed the suitcase’s handle again. What have I put inside, anyway? My mind was foggy and my head heavy, like the luggage in my hands. One of its plastic wheels squeaked in protest as I tugged, to remind me that it was made to travel on the flat surface of an airport; not on a street’s gravel.
Where was I, anyway? Nothing looked familiar in this small town. I knew I was only passing through, but still, it couldn’t be that different to every other town I’d seen on my journey. Or could it? I felt like a salmon navigating the currents of infinite waters to reach an unknown destination. I shook my head in a vain attempt to clear it. I was trying to piece together my memories, but it was like working on a puzzle that was missing half its pieces.
A portly man emerged from a grocery store. “Morning, Jill!”
Who’s Jill? I ignored him and fixed my gaze to the bus stop ahead. The suitcase bumped over a large pebble and almost tipped over. I hastened to steady it with my other hand. My tail twisted in irritation.
Wait, what? I let go of the handle and touched the bump on my lower back, just above the place where my body split into a shallow crack. There was a small protrusion there, twitching left and right. Huh. That’s a new one. I felt sure I should be worried about it, yet I shrugged it off. Perhaps it’s just my imagination. I have to visit a bathroom later, to see what’s really there.
“Everything all right?”
The grocer waved at me and my hand snapped back to the suitcase’s handle. I forced a smile on my lips. No, it’s not! I don’t know you, I’ve got some sort of protrusion growing out of my butt and I have no idea where the heck I am. “Never better, thank you.”
His white moustache twitched under thick lips. He smiled back at me and nodded, making his crimson jowls shake like cherry-flavored jello. “Need any help?”
“I’m good, thanks.” I looked away, tugging once again at the suitcase’s handle. People are strange when you’re a stranger, a voice sang in my head. I couldn’t wait to get away from this strange town. Or was it just me who was weird?
My gaze caught on a dog licking himself clean at the grocer’s feet. He stopped to stare at me, one leg stuck in the air as if warming up for a dance recital. He was a scruffy, brown thing, with white patches and twitching whiskers like those of his owner. The sight triggered conflicting emotions within me. I like dogs, don’t I? Or am I afraid of them? Something stirred in my mind, but disappeared as soon as I tried to grasp it, leaving me frustrated, as if trying to grab smoke with my fingers.
The mutt stretched lazily, then made a beeline towards me. I froze and let him approach. He sniffed my leg, first almost absent-mindedly, then with ever increasing urgency. As soon as his nose reached my behind, he let out a surprised yelp and dashed off to cower between the grocer’s legs. His neck hair was standing up, making him look like a tiny dinosaur. A strange sound, like a growl interspersed with plaintive yelps, was coming from his throat.
The grocer knelt to comfort the dog. “What’s the matter, boy? It’s just Jill.”
I ignored the man’s surprised stare and finally reached the bus stop. I crashed on the chipped wooden bench that sat under its rusty roof. With a loud sigh, I let go of the suitcase and checked my hands. They shook from the effort and felt numb. I rubbed my palms against my forearms to start the blood circulating again. When the feeling returned to my fingers, I closed my eyes and leaned backwards, resting my head against the bus stop’s glass pane.
My eyes flew open. The voice sounded vaguely familiar. It cut through my mind’s fog like a foghorn. Two soft, green eyes met my confused gaze. A handsome face hovered over mine, worry etched on it. A name emerged from somewhere within the oblivion of my soul. “Henry?”
Relief shone in his eyes. “Hey, honey! What are you doing?”
His gentle features set off memories, each dragging the other into my consciousness like a string of pearls. Our meeting, at the grocer’s, thirty years ago. I had just arrived to the small town, from… I couldn’t remember where from, but it mattered little. Memories flooded me now; our brief, yet intense courtship. Our wedding. Our first dog, then our second one. The birth of our children. My hand shot down involuntarily and clutched my belly, as if tracing the stretch marks hiding under the loose skirt.
I remembered our first house, a tiny apartment that we filled with our love. Then our second one, the one with the large garden. The one where our children grew up, before heading off to the world. How could I have forgotten it all?
“What happened?” I whispered the words and grasped the handle of my suitcase, in a desperate attempt to unite the two worlds; the elusive one in my head and the physical one surrounding me.
“When I woke up, you had left. Mister Stevens called to say he had seen you at the bus stop, and that you looked confused.”
Mister Stevens. The grocer. Of course.
“So, I came to find you.” Henry sat down next to me and I scooted over to give him more space. He moved even closer and took my hand into his, his slender fingers hot on my skin. “What’s wrong, darling?”
My eyes misted. “I… I’m not sure. I don’t remember much. Just that I woke up and I had to go…” My mind struggled to remember, but the memory of this morning had already melted away, like dew disappearing from the leaves under the morning sun, leaving them dry as bones. I shook my head. “I don’t know.”
“How is she?”
I spun around to face an elderly man.
“Hey, Doc,” Henry said and stood up. “She seems fine now.”
The newcomer sat next to me, on the other side of the bench, and I swallowed nervously. “I’m fine, really.”
He stared deep into my eyes. “Do you know who I am?”
I smiled. Of course I knew him. The town’s physician had been to our house more times than I cared to remember. This being such a small town, he doubled as pediatrician, and he had put in many a midnight call as our children were growing up. I took his hand and a smile tugged at my lips. “How could I forget?”
He mirrored my smile and lifted a finger into the air. “Can you follow my finger?”
I did as instructed. After a cursory examination, he patted my hand. “You seem fine. Perhaps you bumped your head somewhere?”
I laughed at that; everyone knew what a klutz I was. “Don’t I always?” I then turned to Henry. “Can we go home?”
He cocked his head at Doc, a silent question in his eyes.
Doc cleared his throat. “I don’t see why not. Just spend some time in bed and get some rest. I’ll drop by tomorrow to see how you’re doing.”
“Thanks, Doc.” I raised myself and nodded my appreciation.
Henry stood up after me and kissed my forehead. “Come on, honey. Let’s go home.” He tugged at my suitcase. “Jesus, what have you put in here? Rocks?” He chuckled at his joke and started on his way towards home.
I stared at him for a moment, lost in sudden uncertainty. My hand traced my back with anxious fingers. There was nothing there. I sighed in relief and a wide grin pulled at my lips as a huge wave of love filled my soul. I must have been more confused than I realized. I mean, a tail, of all things? Seriously?
I let out an embarrassed chuckle. “Can you believe I can’t even remember? We’ll open it at home and find out.”
As soon as the words left my mouth, I knew I have to stop him from opening the suitcase, but had no idea why. Or how. I was not worried, though. I’d think of something to take his mind off the suitcase once we’re home. It would be just like that weekend when I had crashed his brand new car. We had spent an entire weekend in bed, while the town’s mechanic worked overtime to have it ready by Sunday evening. Henry had not even found out about it until two weeks later, when he had finally noticed a scratch on the hood, and I had come clean. My punishment had been to spend another weekend in bed. Not too bad.
A mischievous grin tugged at my lips at the possibilities. After all, I had to spend some time in bed. Doctor’s orders and all that. He laughed as I rushed towards him and took him by the arm, squishing my face against his shoulder.
The door’s soft swish interrupted the low hum of the suborbital engines; the only other sound in the spacious bridge. A wide screen showed the green and blue planet rotating gently under the hidden spaceship.
“Yes?” The captain’s hands were firmly clasped behind his back, but his stubby tail twitched back and forth, betraying his impatience. Staying too long over a planet with a space-faring civilization was always a risk. The ship might be invisible to most instruments, but there were people in orbit. People with eyes and cameras. And the slow progress of the evacuation meant that they had already stayed longer than originally planned.
The First Mate approached him, tapping a hand-held screen. “Of the one hundred and thirty Surrogates, eighteen have died in the past thirty years. One hundred and eleven are now on board. And one…” He swallowed nervously. “One is unaccounted for.”
The captain spun around to face him, one eyebrow arched. “What do you mean, unaccounted?”
“We sent the signal. She acknowledged it and indicated she would collect all surveillance equipment and proceed to the rendezvous point. Then…” He hesitated for a moment and ran his fingers through his hair.
“Then, what?” the captain barked.
“We… we don’t know. Her vitals are strong, but she never made it.” The First Mate pressed his lips together. “What shall we do? Do we send someone after her?”
The captain tapped his index finger against his chin, lost in thought. “Could she have reverted to her Surrogate status?”
“It’s rare, but it happens.”
“What about her physiology? Is there anything…”
The First Mate shook his head. “Shouldn’t be. Once the Surrogate persona takes over, she’s all human again.”
A flash on the screen drew the captain’s attention. A silver spot over the atmosphere reflected the sun’s light, like a tiny star. After a moment, it disappeared. “Their space station. That’s it. We’re out of time.” He straightened his uniform with long, nervous strokes. “How long before we’re back?”
“We’ll pick up the new group of Surrogates in thirty years.”
The captain tightened his jaw in determination. “We’ll find her then. Prepare to jump.”
The First Mate’s fingers danced on the handheld screen. The soft hum changed pitch and volume as the massive jump engines sprang to life. “Very well, sir.” He stole a look at the planet below them. It looked serene under the rising sun, like a beautiful green and blue marble. Somewhere down there, a woman just got a thirty-year extension to her undercover mission on Earth. “Have a lovely life, Mrs. Jones.”